Xerox Parc

In 1969, the Chief Scientist at Xerox – then a rich and famous photocopier company – suggested that they ought to invest in a second research center away from headquarters. They chose Palo Alto and created Xerox Parc.

In the next decade, the scientists at Xerox Parc incubated, among other things, the first graphical user interface controlled by a mouse, graphics display, and text editor.

Of course, Xerox never ended up commercializing any of this as their executives never saw the potential of these inventions. So, many of the best researchers left to places like Apple Computer and ended up inventing the future.

Xerox Parc was a one off in many ways. It was and will likely remain among the most productive research facilities in the history of mankind (Bell Labs, perhaps, would be its only real competition). But, the retelling of this famous story doesn’t fail to inspire humility.  The executives at Xerox weren’t stupid – they were just not incentivized to recognize the potential of these breakthrough ideas. That could easily be you or me.

It also never fails to remind me of the importance of investing a small but consistent portion of resources – be it at work, in our financial investments, or in life – in research/exploratory projects with no immediate pay off.  Many of these don’t seem to pay off for the longest time.

Until they do.

Why your garage matters

A garage has had a symbolic role in innovation. We think of startups founded in garages – even if they hardly ever are.

As Steve Johnson writes in “How We Got To Now,” most innovations occur in the “adjacent possible.” And, a few make seemingly impossible leaps.

While the popular theory for innovation is that it is the work of a genius, there are plenty of high IQ individuals at any given time. If there is a common thread, it is that inventors worked at the intersection of multiple fields. Ada Lovelace could see the future of computers as she lived at the edge of science and art. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are modern day examples of cross disciplinary mastery.

Staying within the boundaries of a discipline can enable incremental improvements – which are critical to progress. But, to make leaps, we have to travel across borders – sometimes geographical. These time travelers often have hobbies and interests in varied fields. And, this is one of the reason garages have such a symbolic role in innovation. After all, garages are peripheral spaces where hobbies are worked on.

So, what does this mean for you and me?

Pick a side project. Any side project will do. Work on something you care about and get better at it. It may seem like it has nothing to do with what you do to earn your paycheck. But, it’ll surprise you. When this one runs its due course, it’ll lead you to the next one. And, so on. Very soon, you’ll have a body of work that speaks volumes about who you are and what you care about.

These side projects serve as differentiation in our career – in ways we’d never have imagined. They also give us energy and cross-disciplinary ideas that we would never have dreamed of.

And, most importantly, our side projects are how we walk toward our future selves.

We build ourselves into who we want to be, in time.

And, all that tinkering in our garage plays a big role in that process.

Frederic Tudor and Ice

Frederic Tudor, a young man from a rich family in Boston, once visited the Carribean (estd year – 1800). He was then seized by an idea – how about shipping New England ice to the Carribean?

After many attempts of shipping ice over and gradually overcoming challenges of transportation and storage (blocks of ice melt slowly so it was possible to move them even without too many innovations), he slowly began to stir up some demand. People in the Caribbean began developing an appetite for iced drinks. While Tudor nearly went bankrupt through the process, his fortunes changed by the end and he ended up a multi-millionaire.

But, this started a unique shift as all previous global trade had been about moving materials from warm places (abundant solar energy) to colder ones – spices, food, etc. The ice trade became very successful and the ice barons of New England became rich.

It is this ice that led to the growth of Chicago. While Chicago became a transportation hub thanks to some excellent engineering and building of railroads, it became the hub of the meat industry due to refrigerated meat. How that happened is coming up next week…

A man who has drank his drinks cold at the same expense for one week can never be presented with them warm again. – Frederick Tudor :)

Source and thanks to: How we got to now by Steven Johnson

(This story and quote is part of “The 200 words project.” I aim to synthesize a story from a book (and, occasionally a blog or article) I’ve read within 200 words consecutive Sundays for around 45 weeks of the year.)